WHEN Odysseus travelled home to Ithaca, his ten-year trip took in storms, angry gods, treachery and fearful sea monsters.
In contrast, our journey to the mythical hero’s island home was an easy three-hour flight from Gatwick.
But when we arrived in the baking-hot Ionian islands from drizzly England, we could see why he wanted to get here.
I was on my first journey to the island, along with my wife Lizzy and our children Alice, ten, and Harriet, eight.
We landed on the neighbouring island of Kefalonia, from where we got a ferry to Ithaca’s capital, Vathy. When I say “ferry”, our vessel, The Albatross, was actually more of a traditional wooden sailing boat which had more in common with Humphrey Bogart’s The African Queen than P&O.
We were starting to see that our destination was a little off the beaten track.
The crossing took 45 minutes across choppy waters but luckily I was fortified by Mythos — “premium-quality Hellenic beer” — which at five per cent is a bit strong for such hot weather.
We were deposited at a tiny, ramshackle port and after a quick exchange of details with the Europcar rep, we were driving up a steep ramp of a hill that twisted its way up the side of the cliff. Steep hills would become a theme of our week here.
Our base for the week was the lovely peach-coloured Villa Nondas, a three-bed gem perched on a hill above Vathy.
From the balcony we had fantastic views into the harbour. In the evening there was nothing more pleasant than watching the sun set while listening to an orchestra playing on an island in the bay.
In the mornings we woke to a dawn chorus of barking dogs and crowing cockerels — or chanting priests on one of the many religious days in the valley below.
Crucially in this fierce heat, we also had a pool. The kids immediately dived in while I went into oxygen deficit blowing up an inflatable unicorn their godfather had bought for them. (Thanks for that, Mark.)
Vathy, a ten-minute walk down the hill — or a 30-minute lung-busting hike back up — is a quiet town full of charming old-style shops. We watched two butchers chopping meat with cleavers, looking as if any moment they were about to lose their thumbs. You don’t get that in Sainsbury’s.
Not everything is ideally set up for visitors. One of the main car parks, for instance, has a tree stump bang in the middle of its main entrance.
Life moves slowly here but there are still plenty of tourists.
Indeed, the port is a stop-off for the rich and famous cruising the Med. Their massive yachts, guarded by sinister bodyguards, dwarf the tiny harbour.
We were told by our tour guide Philip Green had been spotted in the area recently . . . but not to let that put us off.
It is not hard to see why so many yachts park up in the harbour. Waterside meals in any of the town’s cafes are a delight. I had several really filling Greek salads with mountains of feta cheese. The girls developed a love of chicken souvlaki.
Nikos, a restaurant off the main square, is particularly good, despite a worrying advert outside showing what appeared to be a chargrilled goat on a spit, baring its teeth and glaring with melting eyeballs.
But the food itself came in large quantities, was really tasty and great value.
Wasps, with their tendency to descend from nowhere at lunchtime, were a nuisance. Luckily we soon discovered that most restaurants will give you a pot of burning coffee, the smell of which these pesky jaspers can’t stand.
The island boasts a plethora of secluded beaches in tiny coves, each of which has its own character — sandy or secluded, or pebbly and bleached white by the sun.
Don’t expect too many facilities. You will be lucky if you get to hire a sunbed and a sunshade. But the turquoise waters provide a lovely chance to cool off from the fierce sun and our kids loved snorkelling and looking at the tiny, brilliantly coloured fish or shoals of silvery sardines.
One of the most spectacular beaches, Aspros Gialos, was reached by windy, steep roads.
When we finally got there, we found a sign at the entrance that read: “No cars beyond this point.”. The advice was hardly necessary, as the road was just 3ft wide.
But a short walk was rewarded by a pebbly beach, also bleached white — ideal for the girls to compete at finding the most interesting stone — leading down to waters that are turquoise at the shore then a bright blueberry as it suddenly deepens.
Others worth visiting include Gidaki, a lovely wide beach…
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